I was introduced to Melinda Advincula on my first day at TESDA, the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority in Manila. After an initial meeting with the Director General I was ushered into a room with several TESDA senior staff. A woman came up to me and introduced herself. “My name is Malinda; everyone calls me Melz” she said. “I am 42, a member of the Mormon Church, single with no intention of getting married”. She smiled and then said to me, “I am your counterpart in TESDA for this project” and invited me to accompany her on a tour of the building. It was an introduction I had not anticipated. I was left following in her wake, unsure of what to say.
Reaching the seventh floor, we walked into a room with six desks.“This is where we will work together for the next 18 months” she said.
Over the next few weeks, Melz and I worked on a plan to organise a series of activities to be conducted in 12 regions across the Philippines. She became a constant companion as we shared the workload. I was to discover a skilled negotiator, hardworking and careful to inform me of the local culture. She was in her element organising transport logistics, accommodation, airport pickup, and general liaison with the Regional Directors and their staff.
Our first plane journey was to Davao in Region 7. Melz organised plane tickets and accommodation for a 3-day workshop.
Al, the project driver arrived at the office to collect us, our luggage and equipment, making several trips to the waiting vehicle. Heading downstairs to the vehicle, we began the drive through the slow-moving, chaotic Manila traffic, arriving without incident at the airline departure drop off point.
Collecting our luggage and seminar material we walked into the Philippines Airlines domestic terminal. Melz directed me to the book in desk, handed me my ticket, then, without a word, disappear into the crowded departure area. I was surprised, but assumed she was attending to some last-minute arrangement.
Fronting up to the booking desk I handed over my ticket, was allocated my seat and proceeded to the departure gate. I looked for Melz but did not see her. Arriving at the departure gate, I sat down and searched in my bag, to locate the book I was reading.
From time to time I looked up to see if Melz was around, but she had disappeared. Then, I glimpsed her walk past my seat without any acknowledgement of my presence. I was puzzled by her action. It was so unlike Melz. Had I said something which offended her? Had she forgotten to collect some of our material from the office?
We were to be met by the Regional Director at the airport in Cebu. He would take us to the Regional Office. I had never met him or his staff. Walking out of the terminal at Cebu, I was surprised to be greeted by Melz. The driver arrived and escorted us to the waiting vehicle. With introductions made with Director Jonny, we were driven to the Regional Office in Cebu.
Back with friends, Melz was in her element, laughing, sharing stories, telling jokes. This thoughtful engaging person spoke in English to include me in the conversation. It was as if the recent experience on the plane journey had never happened. The workshop completed successfully, farewells were made then the return trip to Manila was a repeat of the flight to Cebu. This practice became a standard routine when we travelled together by air or bus.
Some months later I was asked to manage another program in Manila with TESDA. Melz was again assigned to be my counterpart. By this time, we were both able to laugh at this name counterpart. She suggested to me that I was her counterpart.
I had been asked to visit Legaspi City in Region 5 where Melz’s family came from. The standard procedure of handing me my ticket in the departure area of Philippines Airlines had not changed. No word was spoken. Melz went off to do her thing. I proceeded to the departure gate.
While moving slowly towards the departure gate, ticket in hand, I became conscious of someone behind me pushing in. I turned around to see a distressed Melz behind me.
She had an angry look on her face. Her eyes were darting behind her. Then this quiet voice asked if she could stand behind me. Before I could say a word, with eyes down cast she identified a person standing back behind us who was watching me intently.
Melz had identified a middle-aged man, of European decent. I stepped aside and suggested she stand in front of me. We walked onto the plane together. I found my seat; she was seated towards the rear of the plane.
The flight to Legaspi City was uneventful as was our departure from the airport. I was unsure of what to do. We had become a team based on mutual respect. It was still unclear to me what had caused her anger while boarding our plane.
The morning we were to leave Legaspi City, I was having breakfast in the hotel when Melz came in and sat with me. She was quiet. I greeted her and asked if she was going to order breakfast. She ignored my question.
“I want to talk about the incident at the airport before leaving Manila” she said. “That man propositioned me. He was drunk and came up behind me and asked me to go with him to his hotel. I was so angry. This is my country. How dare he, a foreigner, ask me in a crowded terminal to go with him. I am no toy boy. The police are useless. They should arrest him. Just to be seen in the company of a European on a plane is to assume we are living together, and I am not that type”.
Melz talked for some time, her anger raw. I had no response to her pain. Not even a reassuring word. Then there was silence. Melz sat at our table, head bowed. After a few minutes, maybe longer, she stood up and left the table. How dumb was I. Now I understand Melz’s strange behaviour at the airport.
We returned to Manila later that day. Melz make her own way onto the plane. This incident was never discussed again. I continued to work with her in Manila in different roles for another 3 years.
I have reflected on that experience with Melz many times. Where do I sit with this dark side of human nature? How does my own faith journey interact with this experience? Why is it that some cultures treat others as their chattels? Where does the concept of respect fit into this conversation? Perhaps I am being too harsh in my reflection. Perhaps the experience has exposed my sense of inadequacy to respond to Melz’s anger. To protect her from this abuse. To stand up to her abuser.
I have often pondered on the words from the Lords Prayer, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. I take great comfort from these words. That God, through Jesus has forgiven me through his grace. It’s that following bit that I struggle with – “as we forgive those who sin against us”.
Perhaps, someday, I will muster the courage to have a conversation with Melz. Not because I have any wise council to offer, but to sit with her, to listen to and better understand how to stand alongside those treated as chattels.
Respect of others is often taken for granted. Yet respect has within it, an ability to forgive. Respect and forgiveness rest together. Perhaps when respect is missing, forgiveness of another becomes much more difficult. That then touches on my own struggle.